A Yom Kippur scene painted by Maurycy Gottlieb in 1878.
(photo credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
The people of Kaliv, a small town in northeastern Hungary that bears the Hungarian name Nagykallo, once wanted to appoint a certain cantor to lead the service on the High Holy Days.
Before the final decision, they approached the town rabbi to get his input on the appointment. The rabbi, the famed hassidic master Rabbi Yitzhak Eizek Taub of Kaliv (1751-1821), responded by relating the following tale: I once arrived in a certain city and I was extremely hungry.
It was soon time for the afternoon prayer, so I went to the synagogue and prayed. I was famished, but I made the decision to wait until after the evening prayer before eating.
In the middle of the evening prayer, when they reached the “Ahavat olam” (everlasting love) passage, they began to sing cantorial pieces such that the evening prayer continued for an entire two hours! I found out that after the service, there was to be a communal feast where they would read from the communal log book about this strange custom. So I went to the feast to hear what they would read. This is what it said in the log book: In that city there was once a decision by the gentiles to drive out all the Jews. There was a certain influential wealthy non-Jewish woman who found out about the plan. Surreptitiously, she went to the head of the Jewish community.
As tears rolled down her cheeks, she told him about the scheme. The head of the community went to the rabbi of the city, who declared a public fast day. Alas, there was no sign of salvation from the decree. As the fateful day approached, the gentile enemies prepared to massacre the Jews.
The beadle of the Jewish community stood up and announced: “I will tell you why this evil has befallen us. On the Days of Awe we had a certain cantor who was a despicable person. This is the reason that such a persecution has been decreed against us.”
“We have no choice,” continued the beadle. “We must redo Elul and Tishrei: We should act as we do during the month of Elul, and celebrate Rosh Hashana again, have the Ten Days of Repentance, and commemorate Yom Kippur.
Each person should repent from his evil ways, and God will see and have mercy.”
It was decided that the beadle would lead the prayer services.
As it happened, the date of the Yom Kippur replay coincided with the very day that the gentiles had set for attacking the Jews. All the men, women, and children came to the synagogue for “Yom Kippur.” They were fasting, wearing non-leather shoes, and acting as though it were really Yom Kippur.
Toward the end of the day, the beadle stood up before the congregation and with tears in his voice announced: “Behold, I perceive that the evil decree against us has not been nullified, even though we have prayed almost the entire Yom Kippur service.”
As the congregation came to the end of the service, they all stood together and with supreme concentration and faith declared: “God is the Lord.”
At the very same moment, the gentile hooligans had gathered outside the synagogue, brandishing an array of weapons. As they were about to burst in, they heard the cry, “God is the Lord.” In a sudden moment of insanity they set upon each other with their weapons.
The beadle announced: “Thank God, the decree has been canceled!” Some of those gathered in the synagogue turned to quickly pray the evening prayer and go home to break the fast. The beadle stopped them: “No, my dear children, it should not be so.”
The beadle approached the lectern to lead the evening prayer. When the congregation reached the “Ahavat olam” passage they all felt mystically united with the Almighty. They meditated on the prayer expressing God’s everlasting love for some two hours. Only after that did they complete the service and go home, with a sense of joy and gladness in their hearts.
It was decided that, henceforth, that day would be commemorated annually by singing the “Ahavat olam” passage for two hours so that every person would remember the everlasting love of God, who had mercifully saved the community.
Having completed the tale, Taub added: “And now, you should know well whom you should position before the lectern to pray on your behalf on the Days of Awe.” The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is a postdoctoral fellow in Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law.